Tag Archives: post-apocalyptic films

Let’s Start Again: The foreign sensibilities of “Delicatessen”

By Steven Moore

Visions of the post-apocalypse reveal a lot about a culture, what it sees as indispensable to civilization, and what it cherishes. The American vision of the post-apocalypse often involves the loss of safety and convenience, and life becomes a hard toil of survival and violence where power is consolidated into an oligarchy. American visions of post-apocalypse, including Logan’s Run and The Book of Eli, reveal that they prize their comforts and their freedom above all else. In short, Americans want nothing more than a comfortable, easy life. The post-apocalypse from the French perspective does not concern itself with comfort or freedom, beyond necessity.  The terror of the post-apocalypse is the opportunity for the nouveau riche to control the poor. The resurrection of a great class divide and economic disenfranchisement defines the end of civilization.

Delicatessen (1991), Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s first feature film, only hints at the possible causes of the Apocalypse, suggesting a war with artificial intelligence that has nearly destroyed the earth’s ability to grow plants. Presumably, there are no more fossil fuels, because cars are pushed by servants; and although the air is breathable, it reminds me suspiciously of Eliot’s yellow fog that represents the pollution of London. The film focuses on a small group of people living in an apartment building with a butcher shop at the ground floor. All around lie the ruins of what was once a suburban neighborhood. While the wide shots reveal that this is all that is left of the neighborhood, life goes on pretty much as normal. The people watch TV, play music, and sit around being French. When the butcher asks the postal officer about the city, he replies, “Awful, they are eating each other.” The suggestion is that the entire world has turned to cannibalism because “there are no more rats,” and this little building is the last bastion of decency.

Of course, some compromises must be made. To keep the community from turning on one another, the butcher lures unsuspecting travelers, murders them, and sells their meat to residents. However, he uses his advantage for personal gain. Because grain is so scarce, it has become the primary form of currency. Between selling food to the residents and collecting rent, he has become wealthy beyond necessity. He sits in his basement, counting his many sacks of grain, while the people living above him starve. He buys candy, an almost unheard-of novelty, for his daughter, while children in the next room are being fed boots.

Of course, this wouldn’t be a French film if it did not view the tragedy and horror of the situation through the eyes of comedy. Juenet establishes the butcher’s dominance over the small society through a sex scene in which all of the residents are performing whatever tasks they are assigned to the rhythm of his sexual encounter. They cannot stop until he has *ahem* finished. The butcher dominates the community absolutely, so that no one can break free of his rhythm despite ruining a bike tire, breaking strings on a cello, or working faster than humanly possible.

The film makes a point to turn the comical into horror and horror into comedy. The butcher mistakenly attacks one of the residents, cutting off his leg, then proceeds to kill an elderly woman for the meat. Juenet somehow manages to make this and the following scene in which the elderly woman’s daughter weeps over the meat she has just received from the butcher comical. However, a nightmare sequence involving a monkey and a clown, two easy comedic props, is one of the most horrifying dream sequences I have ever seen. (I’m afraid I will be seeing them in my own dreams.)

The characters in Delicatessen are what make the film. Quirky, eccentric, and unbelievably French, they are both lovable and despicable. One woman continually tries and fails to kill herself because of voices coming from the pipes. The Troglodytes, a bumbling underground group of vegetarians who have a sense of Robin Hood about them, attempt to steal the grain and save anyone in danger. The protagonist, Louison (Dominique Pinon), who can’t face his previous life in the circus without his monkey by his side, is oblivious the the decay and danger around him, but is remarkably kind.

The frantic pace and sometimes farcical moments create an atmosphere where I, as the viewer, am barely hanging on to what is happening but am enjoying the ride. I could tell that this film was poorly translated, and that may have had something to do with the sense of confusion. There were many moments where the action was incomprehensible, but I felt like I was butting up against a language barrier and not a plot or directing deficiency. The askew cinematography and tonal juxtaposition work together to create an intentional disorientation, but the mistranslations sometimes add one too many confusing elements.

While the film demonizes the sole man taking advantage of a situation when he could be solving a problem, it does reflect that nobody intends to be evil, that circumstance or ignorance makes us evil. Louison claims early on that, “Nobody is entirely evil: it’s that circumstances that make them evil [sic], or they don’t know they are doing evil.” Even the butcher asks his mistress whether he might have been a good man if the world was different. We all have the potential for evil given the right circumstances or lack of understanding. Like in A Boy and His Dog, when a person is fighting for survival and has never been taught compassion or selflessness, the natural course is to work solely for personal gain. Without society, life is nasty, brutish, and short. And then you end up dinner.

Let’s Start Again: “Last Night” is bright

By Steven Moore

When does society become post-apocalyptic? Must society completely collapse in order to push the world into a post-apocalyptic state? According to Don McKellar’s Last Night, the world becomes post-apocalyptic the moment people realize that the party is coming to an end. Knowing the exact moment life will end brings out the truth in people. Of course you have your dregs, devolving into violence and anarchy to distract themselves from the fear of impending eternal nothingness; however, unlike so many other post-apocalyptic filmmakers, McKellar chooses to acknowledge, but not focus on, this aspect of the apocalypse. Instead the audience spends 95 minutes following people who are trying to figure out what it means for everything to end. Each person comes up with a reasoned idea of what is important, what matters most in the last few hours of life.

Although the specific cause is never mentioned, hints suggest that a nearby star has gone supernova, and that the radiation wave is approaching earth. It will wipe out all life on the planet, and everyone knows the exact moment it will happen. This is one of the more brilliant causes of apocalypse I’ve seen in a film, being completely plausible, unexpected, and inevitable. There is no bad guy, no political agenda to get in the way of the raw look at the human psyche. This is the universe, uncaring and unconcerned with this speck of dust floating out in the backwoods of a rather unremarkable galaxy. Nature has declared us unfit to live, and it is just a matter of waiting until the axe falls. So when there is no one to blame, people must turn to examining themselves.

The film is a montage, following several story lines. Normally I don’t like these kinds of films because they tend to focus more on thematic development than character development. Films like Magnolia and Crash, although well made, just don’t appeal to the things I look for in a movie: story, character development, world building. Fortunately, here it works. The primary protagonist is Patrick Wheeler, played by McKellar himself. He is a sullen man who has experienced tragedy and cannot forgive the world for what it has taken from him. He has resolved to spend the last few hours of life alone. His determination borders on cruelty as he refuses his parents’ attempt at a final Christmas, his sister’s attempts to connect with him, and even a stranger who, although he eventually makes the connection, he initially sees only as a temptation. Despite the minimal character growth of the minor characters, his growth is one of the most subtle and profound I’ve seen in a film.

Patrick’s encounters throughout the movie spiderweb out to reveal the many different ways people deal with the end. His best friend, Craig, decides to amass as much sexual experience as he can. While he initially seems to just be falling into the trap of hedonism, his eventual defense of his actions is surprisingly well thought out. He takes sex seriously as not just a physical connection, but an emotional and spiritual connection. He wants to build that connection with as many people as he can in as many ways as he can. Craig inevitably propositions Patrick for a sexual encounter that, in the context of the film, seems strangely reasonable between two heterosexual men, despite the relief I felt when Patrick refused him. It’s reminiscent of the scene at the end of Chasing Amy when the logic of Holden’s argument is uncomfortably clear.

Patrick ends up spending his final hours with Sandra, played by the always wonderful Sandra Oh, who tries desperately to return to a man she loves. Her final solution to deal with the end of the world results from an obvious and empathetic despair. Her performance made me feel her anguish at not being able to return to her new husband, a dedicated workaholic who nevertheless is compassionate and conscientious. There are no stereotypes here, and each human being has something worthy about them to make the approaching tragedy even more tragic. The eventual connection made between Patrick and Sandra is a complete human connection that has passed through despondency and loneliness, beyond physicality, a pure humanity built from empathetic love and the desire to live in the face of inevitability.

Don McKellar hasn’t done many movies and primarily works in the short film format, which I suspect attributes to the short running time of the movie. I would have liked to spend more time with these characters who find different ways of connecting to the world around them, if only for a few hours. When the world comes to an end, every person is left with a choice: connect to what is beautiful and human in the world or lose all social constraint and purpose. At one point two old women are sitting on a couch discussing the end of the world. When one laments over the children never knowing what life is about, the other protests, “I’ve invested 80 years in this life. Children don’t know what they are missing. I don’t care about the children.” This film sees life as an investment, and challenges the viewer to ask, “How do you invest in humanity if it has no future? Are we worth the investment?”

I cannot recommend this film enough.

Let’s Start Again: “Night of the Comet” makes a buck

By Steven Moore

This week I watched two post-apocalyptic films, both of which include the cataclysmic event instead of being set long after. This week I’ll discuss Thom Eberhardt’s Night of the Comet as an example of how an apocalyptic film can go horribly wrong, and next week we’ll explore Don McKellar’s Last Night and the psychological impact of an apocalypse. Where one is clear exploitation and financially motivated, the other is an exploration of the human condition. These two films provide the two ends of the spectrum, and I wanted to discuss them one after another for that reason. The post-apocalyptic film can lay humanity bare or exploit the fears of the weak. Night of the Comet prefers the latter.

In Night of the Comet, an approaching comet that seems to have induced a worldwide keg party has passed too close to earth, bathing it in some sort of radiation that turns most people to a pile of reddish dust and a lucky few into zombies. Why zombies? Because there has to be some sort of monster, right? The kids these days like monsters.

Julius Caesar would be proud.

The handful of survivors have been protected by being inside any kind of steel shelter. One young girl runs away from home and spends the night in a steel shed, and emerges unscathed to find everyone gone, though she’s more interested in her music than the death of humanity, because that’s how kids are. The protagonist of the film is Regina, a video game wizard who works in a movie theater and sleeps with various male employees to make a few extra bucks (this is before the apocalypse, mind you). Regina, played by a doe-eyed Catherine Mary Stewart, just happens to spend the night in a steel-reinforced movie theater film room with one of the aforementioned employees, and thus survives.

The problems with this film are so numerous and so deep that it would be impossible to enumerate them in a single blog post. Early on in the film, Regina and her boyfriend are discussing Superman’s inability to see through lead. Regina explains that lead halts radiation, which is how Superman sees through objects. This is a bright moment of the movie that made me think, okay, this could be kind of smart. Two scenes later, the metal that saves people is not the lead that they were clearly discussing previously to set up the miraculous survival of a few, but plain steel. Why? What happened? My best guess is that they were able to get a sponsor from the steel industry, and this movie was just about the money anyway. A shopping spree scene where the two young girls are dancing around through a department store, trying on clothes to bad 80’s music, and giggling as the dust of human beings lies all around them illustrates the priority of product placement over any kind of actual craft.

To be honest, I almost didn’t even bother writing about this movie; however, it illustrates a pitfall of the post-apocalyptic genre. Night of the Comet came out just as the fever regarding Halley’s Comet was starting to ramp up. Even though there was absolutely no evidence of danger, people were scared. I recall anti-comet pills being sold on store shelves and a smattering of bomb shelters being built. While it was nowhere near the nuclear scare of the 1950’s and most people realized it was silly, this film saw an opportunity to capitalize on fear and jumped on it. How many post-apocalyptic films describe an end to the world that seems to spring right from our own irrational fears? There have been countless nuclear-, fossil fuel-, and technology-based apocalypses. Every new story about the end of the world seems to confirm exactly how we think it’s going to end based on current events: bird flu, terrorists, fast food, etc.

The post-apocalyptic genre is about revealing humanity’s dark side, including those fears we try to push aside, to hold back while we go about our daily lives. The end of humanity is inevitable, and we all know it. When or how that will happen is unknown, but the planet Earth has a shelf life. We, as a species, have known this ever since we started watching the stars. It’s embedded in our psyche, even though we don’t want to think about it. Whether it be the eventual death of the sun or some other event, our home is temporary. While some filmmakers decide to tap into the subconscious fear and use it to make a quick couple of dollars, others use it to explore the human condition beyond social constraint. Usually, it’s pretty ugly. In Night of the Comet, the revelation is that there are always people out there that will try to make a buck off other people’s irrational behavior, something shown in every other post-apocalyptic film. When the Apocalypse comes, these are the people you want to look out for.

Let’s Start Again: The post-apocalyptic utopia of “Logan’s Run”

By Steven Moore

I think it impossible, in this postmodern age of cynicism, to have a utopia that doesn’t have a dystopian underbelly. Agent Smith explains it best in The Matrix: the first matrix was created as a utopian paradise for humanity, but we couldn’t help but feel as though something was wrong. We kept searching for the seedy underbelly and rejected the good and beautiful world created around us. I imagine someone arguing that it was a false world, and I would say to that person willing to engage in such a nerdy argument, that people accepted the subsequent imperfect matrix, so why not the perfect one? Can the post-apocalyptic utopia be supported by anything other than death and decay? Can humanity really live in a utopia? Apparently not in the 1976 film Logan’s Run.

Yes, she certainly will.

Logan’s Run takes place long after the apocalypse. Humanity has recovered and now lives in a replica of Epcot Center, except that after a hard day’s work riding through plastic tubes and hanging out in the food court you can dial yourself an anonymous sex partner for the evening. Even though there’s so much anonymous sex going on, babies are created in lab tubes, and only to replace those that have died. Nobody knows their father or mother (which makes the anonymous sex thing kind of creepy). The population is kept beautiful (because anonymous sex wouldn’t be very fun if there were ugly people) by killing anyone who reaches the age of 30 in an anti-gravity disco that turns people into fireworks, as well as by a machine that can make you look like whatever you want (Jennifer Agutter will do just fine as she is, thank you).

While most people are content with the notion that this anti-gravity disco provides them with something they all refer to as “renewal,” even though no one really knows what that means, a few people question whether the anti-gravity disco is really for them. These people try to escape the city instead of being turned into a fireworks display. They are called Runners, and they are searching for a place code-named Sanctuary, even though nobody knows what that is. The Runners can only reach Sanctuary with a special key shaped like an Ankh, the Egyptian symbol for eternal life. People working to help us old folk who are at or over 30 escape to Sanctuary brazenly wear the Ankh on their person for all to see, yet the computer dictator who runs everything has no idea how to find them. (It must run on Windows; it can never find a solution to the problem.)

Our savior, ladies and gentlemen--stigmata and all.

There is a police force called the Sandmen who attempt to stop these Runners who escape from the Epcot Center of Hedonism. Unfortunately, the Sandmen have terrible aim with their zap guns, and those that eventually escape the prescribed dreamless sleep for anyone too cowardly not to conform, can look forward to a world that is pretty nearly lifeless except for lizards, cats, and one old man who keeps quoting T.S. Eliot. There is an alternative set aside, a preserve for those under 30 who don’t like free sex and food courts, and they are free to roam the halls of this preserve wearing rags and mugging at passersby, at least until the big three-oh.

In all honesty, this is a pretty good film that I enjoyed immensely despite some of the silliness. I personally had a hard time seeing the carousel-enforced utopian society as something anyone would want to escape or as a postmodern dystopia. Although everyone dies at 30, they spend those 30 years without bills, work, or any cares at all. They are free to pursue whatever interests they choose and never have to worry about disease or injury. I doubt most people get 30 years of leisure time throughout their entire life. The only rule in this utopian world is that you must show up when it’s your time to die. Other than that, just chill out and do whatever. The protagonist of the film, a Sandman name Logan, played by Michael York, eventually succeeds in destroying the utopian society, forcing the inhabitants to flee into a nearly lifeless world to fend for themselves. Hey guys, you’re all free to toil and work your fingers to the bone just to survive for the next 50-60 years. Yay! Oh yeah, we’re gonna have ugly people now too.

Logan’s Run is a different thematic interpretation of a post-apocalyptic humanity, exploring an important question: would you rather be taken care of and live a carefree life for 30 years or live the natural human lifespan struggling for survival? Is it worth it to know exactly when and where you will die? In a post-human world where the previous social structure obviously didn’t work out so well, they seemed to find something that worked, and Logan had to come by and ruin it all. Thanks for ruining the party, dude.

Straight Adaptations: The Road v. The Da Vinci Code

By Nathanael Griffis

Why do they have to change everything? moans the viewer as he leaves the theater disappointed that a certain ethos was not captured, that a character’s appearance was different, or that they were cut entirely. Well, sometimes very little is changed. Things will be cut, but these two examples are about as loyal to their source materials as movies get. The problem is that loyalty is not always a good thing. On the one had we have The Road, one of the great post-apocalyptic films and novels from one of the best English writers ever. On the other we have The Da Vinci Code, which was written by Dan Brown and a lot of people bought it. So let’s begin.

Man, boy, gun, on the road. This is basically the movie.

The Road: Cormac McCarthy’s work is a mixture of Raymond Carver minimalism, Faulknerian description, and Poe’s sense of horror and realism. In the future this style will probably be simply titled McCarthyesque. Because of his bleak, straightforward method of writing, his books translate well to film. All the Pretty Horses and No Country for Old Men are great movies. (It should also be noted that No Country for Old Men is not considered one of his better novels). In No Country for Old Men, McCarthy writes the Texas setting like few before him. It was completely unromanticized. So when he published The Road, what would you expect but one of the most horrifying visions of the apocalypse ever.

The world has ended, and a father and son travel down a road trying to survive while still holding onto their humanity. Post-apocalyptic films, for all their scary subject matter, normally manage to make the apocalypse seem cool. They’re afraid to show you what the end of the world would really be like. A hopeless bleak landscape of death, is what it would look like, and that’s what The Road give us. (Also, it might not include massive shootouts, explosions, or skimpily clad attractive women, so Hollywood is suspicious of it.)

As director, John Hillcoat was perfect for this film. The Proposition treats the Western in the same sense The Road treats the apocalypse, with unflinching realism. Hillcoat rounded up an amazing cast too: Viggo Mortensen as the father, Charlize Theron as his former wife, Robert Duvall as the Old Man, Guy Pearce as the Veteran, Micheal Kenneth Williams as the Thief, and Kodi Smit-McPhee as the Boy.

Why's the black guy gotta be the thief?

This film is full of startling performances, and it’s a shame it was forgotten during Oscar season. Admittedly, 2009 was a tough year to break into the Oscars with so many spectacular films that year. Each actor in The Road, no matter the size of his role, seems to recognize the importance of it. The art direction is perfect in the film. A scraggly Viggo Mortensen in a gray scale wilderness wipes out any sense of grandeur left over from The Lord of the Rings.

What is really impressive about the film though is the script. To take a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and dare adapt it is a challenge to live up to, but Joe Penhall (who previously adapted Enduring Love, an Ian McEwan novel, so he likes adapting modern classic writers) was smart. He took the book and eliminated little. He followed the plot’s progression and kept most of the scenes and, more impressively, most of the dialogue. When he cut it was mainly to shorten a section from the book. In this case it works wonderfully. The horror and tension experienced when the Man breaks into a locked basement looking for food becomes fully realized when you see the still living dismembered people groping about the floor. There are a few scenes of violence and cannibalism in the book, mostly involving children and babies, that the director and writer show restraint in depicting, but for the most part it is staggering how frightening a film this is. What’s so amazing about the book is its sense of hope in the face of utter destruction, a classic apocalyptic trope. Penhall, I suspect, recognized that it was McCarthy’s bare dialogue that lends hope to the chaotic vision, so he doesn’t lose it. There is no attempt to add extra action, a stirring race-to-the-goal montage, or a heavy-handed death scene with a blaring score.

The brilliance of the whole project is that the source material is too genius not to use. The writer wisely chooses to keep its brilliance and not change much. No one but Cormac McCarthy can still convey hope in the face of extinction and have it feel unforced, so why not use his words and his descriptions to make a masterpiece. So what happens when the author is not one of McCarthy’s caliber?

Do you think it's a coincidence that Audrey Tautou looks like the Mona Lisa?

The Da Vinci Code: I don’t think Dan Brown would be insulted if I said he wasn’t as good a writer as Cormac McCarthy, but who knows, maybe he disagrees. Dan Brown is comparable to Tom Clancy. He’s a proficient thriller-writer who does an impressive amount of research. The man knows his art and art history. If only he’d taken some time to research how to write interesting characters and dialogue. He can write conspiracy mysteries and give you a creepy bad guy pretty well. What he should do is read some Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Dashiell Hammett to get a sense of how you make a more interesting character than the bland symbologist Robert Langdon. I present to you our introduction to Langdon in the novel The Da Vinci Code: “Robert Langdon awoke slowly.” Wow. What resonance. What a strong verb. Detect sarcasm? I hope so.

The issue here is that Dan Brown crafted a controversial thriller and perfected the art of the chapter cliffhanger, producing a worldwide bestseller. Then, with dollar signs in their eyes, Columbia Pictures bought the rights and an impressive cast and crew: Ron Howard as director; a cast that includes Tom Hanks, Jean Reno, Alfred Molina, Paul Bettany, Audrey Tautou, and Ian McKellen; a musical score by Hans Zimmer; a script by Akiva Goldsman (and mind you, the last time Goldsman wrote a script for Ron Howard, it was Cinderella Man, and before that A Beautiful Mind). So why didn’t this work out? Because the source material is not that great, if you stay loyal to it. A long scene where an old art collector explains the finer points of conspiracy art theory is kind of interesting on the page. On film, it’s slow and taxing, watching Ian McKellen and Tom Hanks lecture us on art, which is basically what it is–a poorly orchestrated sequence of exposition and Q&A about Renaissance painters. There is very little action in the story, a lot of globetrotting but lackluster locations, and the Louvre is amazing, yes, but it isn’t shot well.

Paul Bettany as "Darth" Silas

The only character of interest, Silas (played by Paul Bettany), is killed off way too easily, and all tension leaves the movie. The mystery is already solved, because everyone’s read the book, so relying on a mystery is boring. Like I said in my first article on adaptations, it’s about how you tell the story. We all know Romeo and Juliet die; you have to make us care. You get great actors to imbibe the characters with something new, not just walk around old historical structures and look at the ceiling.

The Da Vinci Code is basically the strangest and most expensive thing ever made by the Travel Channel. It’s a randomly planned tour of Europe for only nine dollars. Books do not translate perfectly to the screen. Being loyal to an audience can mean ruining your art form. It takes away the ability of the director, the writer, and the actors to create a quality product. (I don’t know what Hans Zimmer’s excuse was). The book should have been rehashed like Tom Clancy’s novels have been, or even better, Robert Ludlum’s Bourne novels. Take the premise–a symbologist solves the mystery of a historical conspiracy while running around Europe. That’s pretty exciting. But it isn’t.

When it comes to a straight adaptation, make sure of two things: that the source material is interesting and well written, and that it translates to film well. Without good writing and good visual descriptions, it won’t work no matter who’s involved in the project.

Next I’ll take a look at the most common of adaptations–the basic adaptation–with the movies Holes and The Golden Compass.

Let’s Start Again: The leap of “The Road Warrior”

By Steven Moore

This summer I decided to spend time focusing on the post-apocalyptic genre of film. As a consequence, I have been spending many afternoons wandering the wastelands of humanity. I’ve been traipsing through not only the films I will be reviewing, but also less worthy candidates to round out my explorations. An unexpected consequence of spending so much time in the wreckage of society is that my general feeling about humanity has taken a few hits. When stripped of our politeness and the threat of consequence, most of us are horrifyingly savage and brutal–if movies are to be believed. If I wasn’t already a misanthrope, I surely will be come summer’s end.

My first foray into the apocalyptic wasteland was the well-regarded classic Mad Max. After watching Mad Max, I wasn’t looking forward to watching its sequel. However, I am nothing if not determined to punish myself, and so I forged on. Due to Netflix’s ever shifting instant watch availability, I was forced to wait longer than I would have liked to finally sit down and watch The Road Warrior. Immediately, the difference was clear. The film starts with a newsreel-style retelling of the end of the world. The previous film is framed as a backstory for Max and a backdrop for the apocalypse itself.

Storytelling techniques, characterization, production value–all are not just a step up, but a flying leap beyond the original film. This isn’t just a budget issue, this is a director who learned from his mistakes and made something far better. Where the original Mad Max had an indefinite sense of landscape and character, this film clearly defines who these people are, how the story is going to be told, and what kind of world we, the audience, can expect to inhabit. The Austrialian landscape provides the perfect setting for a world on the brink of ending. The most present concern, fossil fuels, still resonates (perhaps even more loudly), and everyone emits the stink of desperation.

The first film is a great backstory to this film, and gives a kind of characterization to Max that is rare in the “stranger walks into town” story. With the background of the first film, you understand why Max makes the choices he does, what motivates him, even why he has a leg brace. The Road Warrior benefits from the first film, enabling a hero with the complexity of a man with a past. It provides a layer of depth unique to this genre, and to film in general. Post-apocalyptic films, by definition, do not focus on the past, and as a result, often leave the backstory of the characters as something off in the blurry distance. The focus instead rests on the aftermath of tragedy, with very little regard to the tragedy itself. (In a film like The Road, which I will be reviewing later in the summer, the tragedy itself isn’t even made explicit, and the lives that lead up to the tragedy are never explored.)

However, in The Road Warrior the focus is on Max and his explicit tragedy and subsequent willingness to do anything to survive, even leaving someone trapped in a car to presumably die. People are nothing more than a form of currency to him, and although he does not partake in the vicious and appalling acts that the gangs commit, he often seems bored by the brutality around him and does very little to stop it. Even his great hero moment, which does eventually come, only comes because he has no other choice.

In the end he is treated as a myth, the great Herculean hero that showed up one day, set everything right, and disappeared again. I found this to one of the most hopeful of the post-apocalyptic films I have watched so far. This is a picture of humanity rebuilding its myths, fighting for the very ideas that brought us to dig in the dirt and plant seeds. Even though Max is not a part of humanity’s continuing struggle back to humanity, he knows its importance and helps fight for it. Even the most misanthropic know the value of human connection.

Loose Adaptations: Children of Men & War of the Worlds

By Nathanael Griffis

A loose adaptation is simply when the source material, a novel normally, is used only as a conceptual basis for a story. Sometimes characters are kept, themes may remain, but the overall plot is basically rewritten. Loose adaptations are tricky. On the one hand you allow for a more creative take on a story. On the other you may offend the loyal fan base of a book. Deciding to adapt a novel loosely is always interesting and for the most part relies on the talent surrounding it, so when you have Alfonso Cuarón, Clive Owen, Michael Caine, Julianne Moore, and Chiwetel Ejiofer on a film one can produce one of the best films ever made. Talent isn’t everything though, because Tim Robbins, Steven Spielberg, Dakota Fanning, and Tom Cruise should spell success, but it didn’t. So here’s my look at why these two loose adaptations succeeded and failed respectively.

Plain and simple, one of the greatest moments in film.

Children of Men: If at all possible, let’s forget the revolutionary cinematography, the haunting performances, and the sharp editing of the film, and focus on the story. Theo Faron is asked by his ex-wife Julian to acquire a pass to the coast for a young woman whom we later discover is pregnant in a world where there has not been a pregnancy in 18 years. This is the basic plot of the movie, but it is slightly different from P.D. James’ novel. Theo was never married to Julian, and is significantly older; Julian merely wants an audience with the Warden of England; oh, and Julian is the pregnant woman. So, besides keeping characters’ names and the overall concept of an infertile human race, the differences are significant.

The novel is quieter and more slowly paced, exploring the political side of power structures controlling a population. The government executes the elderly in a mass drowning off the coast of England. The powers that be then use these events to maintain a sense of order through indirect threats, while also satisfying a dying population’s desire for release from the torment of the end of humanity. They dictate what pleasurable activities are allowed and round up foreigners and miscreants (which is kept in the movie). The book is also concerned, as most books are, with being more subjective. We stay with Theo, and his inner struggle is more the story than anything else. Director Alfonso Cuarón keeps this concept in Children of Men, as the camera never really sees what Theo can’t, but we don’t spend time meandering around his brain reminiscing. The book is brilliant and has wonderful characters and descriptions. I have to say the film and the novel are even; neither outshines the other, which is rare.

The film takes the concept of infertility and runs with it, adding ideas of racism and social revolution, which are in the book but not major themes. The decision to connect Julian and Theo is brilliant–it adds another layer to the characters. Both versions have a bleak tone with hopeful endings amidst death and suffering. What is different is that Cuarón understands that his medium is a visual one. He needs the visuals to enhance his thematic ideas. The setting becomes as desolate as the situation. I think of the scene of Theo and the mid-wife, played by Pam Ferris, waiting in an abandoned school. It’s subtle because Cuarón doesn’t meditate on it, but unforgettable as we see the pregnant Kee (played by Clare-Hope Ashitey) stolen through rotting playground equipment.  The book relies on description and dialogue to show us man’s reliance on order and power despite a decaying future. The long single takes throughout the film heighten the tension, increase the reality, and provide a more subjective sense for the audience. Cuts give film a sense of fabrication, which is not necessarily a negative thing, but a long single shot of a car being attacked or an entire neighborhood at war places the viewer inside the situation. P.D. James wants us involved in the discussion. Cuarón provides us with an experience. Children of Men is the ultimate example of how to successfully loosely adapt a novel.

War of the Worlds: There are several loose adaptations of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, but I am only going to mention two: the infamous Orson Welles radio adaptation that sent America into a panic, and the middling action flick that Spielberg offered us in 2005. H.G Wells’ novel is tough to adapt, as any classic is, but especially since it is a science fiction period piece. How does one do futuristic 1898? Well, you have to modernize it, which almost always means a loose adaptation of sorts. What Orson Welles did was brilliant. He took the concept of the alien invasion and its themes of science, warfare, and the ineffectiveness of Victorian mores, and used it to scare the bejeezus out of the country. That is how you loosely adapt something. I can’t speak to much to that performance as I’ve never heard it, but its impact alone is legendary, so we can assume it’s good.

Tom Cruise coming to terms with the film.

Steven Spielberg, we should be able to assume is good too. After Minority Report, a good adaption of a Philip K. Dick short story, the pairing of Cruise and Spielberg should have been welcome, and it was, but the product was underwhelming. Wells’ novel is a cautionary tale at heart. It warns man of the dangers of science for the advancement of warfare. The aliens metaphorically are not some outside force, but a superpower gone wrong. They destroy without any warning, any forethought, out of nothing but a sense of greed and desire to conquer. The novel is frighteningly prophetic when one considers that two world wars followed it and were started, at the basest of levels, out of humanity’s desire to conquer others. These concepts could be taken and placed into a modern day context to warn a growing scientific community that is becoming heavily reliant on government defense contracts to take heed. Instead we are served up with what eventually becomes a run-of-the-mill sci-fi action flick.

Spielberg’s film keeps the concept of a cylinder burying itself in the ground. It keeps the death of the aliens by the common cold, which should signify that humanity/science will ultimately not be able to combat nature in a warfare setting, but here feels like a lame cop-out ending. They add an interesting reference to Harlan Ogilvy, one of the few named characters in the novel, in Tim Robbins. I can’t help but feel though that a lot of this is wasted potential. The beginning has some haunting Holocaust imagery. Tom Cruise as Ray Ferrier shaking the ashes of victims from his hair sets a frightening tone. The bodies floating down a river as Ray’s daughter Rachel (played by Dakota Fanning) watches leaves us startled. The blood-drenched trees and landscapes that Ray walks out into horrifies. All these images seem like wasted art, bad abstraction without a directed substance or meaning. They symbolize things and matter within the scene and build character, but they don’t hold weight in the overall story.

Run! No, don't stare at the alien tripod, run, Ru...uh too late.

What both Orson and H.G. did in their stories by keeping the narrator anonymous, was provide the sense of subjectivity we got from Cuarón’s Children of Men. The protagonist becomes an everyman of sorts and we place ourselves in his role, asking what reaction we should have. In the case of Orson Welles, it was such an effective subjectivity as to transcend the line of fiction and lead the masses in the expected reaction of a panic.

There is nothing wrong with building characters in a film. In fact, a film adaptation would require it. Spielberg attempts this with Ferrier as a single father trying to connect with and raise his kids. Initially it works, but there are two problems: First, Tom Cruise is not an everyman. He’s a character actor who portrays an intensely specific persona. I’ve  never seen a performance of his and felt I could relate to it; several times I’ve been impressed, but relate, no. He’s not Jimmy Stewart or, dare I say, Matt Damon.

The second problem is the lack of a consistent theme, along with egregious plot holes. Spielberg’s penchant for tying things up in a bow in his blockbuster films falls flat here and leaves the viewer confused. Why does the son survive and randomly show up with perfect timing? If all it takes is a few grenades, how are the aliens still fearsome? The action becomes the focus in the second half of the film, and the death of the aliens at the hands of the common cold doesn’t resonate. It feels like another unnecessary bow on a muddled package.

So if you’re going to adapt something loosely, make sure it has good themes, and make sure you utilize them. Having the title of the novel, a star actor and director, and good special effects is not enough. It takes innovation, a great script, and an overall sense of purpose to garner success. You don’t have to be unrepentantly loyal to a source material to make a successful story–but what would happen if you were? We’ll see next time when I discuss straight adaptations with The Road and The Da Vinci Code.

Let’s Start Again: The apocalyptic vision of “A Boy and His Dog”

By Steven Moore

A true post-apocalyptic world is an awesome thing to behold: humanity stripped of everything that makes us human; compassion, appreciation of beauty, and altruism all crumble like the cinder blocks of supermarkets and shopping malls, to be replaced by only the hardiest of weeds–self-interest and survival instinct. The 1975 film A Boy and His Dog is a true post-apocalyptic vision, taking place long after everything has gone to hell and the landscape contains only the scraps and decay of humanity.

The world has fallen to the destruction of World War IV, which was swiftly followed by a moral apocalypse, in which the dirt “belongs to anyone strong enough to take it for his own,” and men do nothing but search for food and women. The premise is that most men are off fighting wars, so the real victims of a nuclear war would be civilians, women, and children. This insight is one of the many understated insights of the film. Very few women are left, so men wander the desolation, looking for women.

Vic, played by a young Don Johnson, is a child of the war. His parents were killed in the carnage, and he has been forced to grow up alone but for his psychic dog. He has no moral compass, no sense of what is right. He is the symbol of human baseness, what we would become if left to our natures. His dog, Blood, is the result of some wartime experiments that gave dogs the ability to psychically communicate with some humans. Blood helps Vic find women with his sense of smell. The pair eventually come across a subterranean subculture that owes a lot to Brave New World and Orwellian dystopia.

The film is based on a book of the same name and is pretty faithful, though it cuts out some technically difficult scenes. While Blood’s abilities are explained at length in the book, the film only lightly touches on them, which left me a little unclear on the relationship between Blood and Vic initially. The real controversy of the film is in the final line, which makes light of the surprise but complicated ending. What the book presents as a serious moral question, the film makes into a joke, undercutting any sort of weight the film might have had.

This is a difficult movie. Vic is no hero, and his actions are appalling. The general cavalier attitude toward rape almost made me shut it off ten minutes into the film. However, the backstory forced me to confront the question: would it really be that different? What else would a world in which very few women are left, run by men who grew up without any guidance from adults, look like? Can you blame a person who has never been told that forcing yourself on another human being is despicable? I hope I know the answers to these questions, but this movie did make me think. In the end, Vic chooses someone else over himself. Although his choice is his dog, isn’t that what social morality is about–putting someone else over yourself? There is a glimmer of hope that something in us is good, even when it hasn’t been nurtured.

The overall quality of this film is pretty bad, partly because it hasn’t aged well and partly because it didn’t have much of a budget. There are also a few silly moments, where the “love interest” knocks out two grown men with nothing but a bouquet of flowers. A general pulp feel permeates everything and distracts from the serious ethical questions the film is exploring. It would make a great remake, although it would probably be even more controversial in this day and age. As the author of the original book notes, the final line of the film, not present in the book, undercuts nearly every question the film explores; however, if you can ignore it’s own undoing and stomach deplorable behavior in the name of exploring some important questions about humanity, A Boy and His Dog will be worth it.

Let’s start again: “Mad Max” and the two kinds of post-apocalypse

By Steven Moore

Because I have a long summer of sunshine and flowers ahead of me, I have decided to counter it over the next few months by exploring worlds where humanity has been stripped of everything it has built and brought to the brink of annihilation. The post-apocalyptic vision in film is one of my favorite themes because it strips away all of those things we think are so important, and presents the audience with a raw look at humanity, usually a not-so-pretty look. It presents simultaneous death and rebirth with the possibility of something better, even if it usually devolves into dystopia.

The first film I will be looking at in this series is Mad Max. Having never seen Mad Max, and as a fan of post-apocalyptic cinema, it stood high on my list of shame. After watching it, I could argue that it’s not a true post-apocalyptic film, but it turns out to be a great first film for this new series because it illustrates the two different kinds of post-apocalyptic visions. The traditional post-apocalyptic film is one in which society and all its achievements have been destroyed completely; human beings are left scavenging the bones of civilization, stripped of the many thousands of years of effort to pull ourselves out of the swamps and trees. Every aspect of society has collapsed, and the destruction is usually imposed by some outside force, be it virus, alien, war, etc.

The second kind of apocalypse is a moral apocalypse. A dystopian society is left intact materially, but social morality has collapsed. Society has cast off the chains of moral restraint and devolved into civilization where the stronger and less principled man or woman gets what they want. The dystopian post-apocalyptic vision is really a subset of the first vision, where the physical destruction of society often leads to a moral collapse. Where it differs is that the characters often deal exclusively with moral decay, and survival is not about basic necessity, but instead about becoming strong.

Mad Max presents a vision of the apocalypse perfectly in line with the latter. The world (or at least Australia) has succumbed to roving biker gangs who rape and pillage whenever and wherever they see fit. Society itself goes on as normal, except when these biker gangs stroll into town, and take what they want. The biker gangs are combatted by road warriors, police officers who roam the roads searching them out, hunting them down. The road warriors are nearly as lawless as the biker gangs, except that they generally protect civilians, as long as it’s convenient.

The thematic notion that the protectors are only a slight nudge away from the lawless and psychopathic biker gangs is probably the most interesting aspect of the film, and the characteristic of the film that most recommends it as a dystopian post-apocalyptic vision. When those who are supposed to protect us are as thrill-seeking and morally questionable as those they are hunting, the social contract has expired. Even when Max tries to escape the decay of authority, he is drawn back in not by justice, but by a desire for violent revenge.

Other aspects of the movie are less stellar. The heavy-handed moment when the baby is playing with a hand-gun (just so we, the audience, know things are bad), the absurd police chief with nothing on but a scarf and leather pants, and the terrible pacing of the movie all make me wonder why this film is so revered. When a revenge tragedy only begins the revenge plot fifteen minutes before the film ends, the script needs work. Max’s solution to his buddy being horribly disfigured is to cut out. What follows is at least 30 minutes that seem like home movies of a young Mel Gibson hanging out with the fam.

Friends have told me the that the sequel, which I will be reviewing next week, is a better version of the same movie and more in line with the first kind of post-apocalyptic world. Mad Max has some great ideas, but the execution is poor. Hopefully, those great ideas are expanded and refined in the sequel.